Highlights of the SPEL conference 2017

This year’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference, held in Edinburgh’s COSLA building, focused on Anticipating and preparing for change and covered a range of topics from the impact of Brexit on planning and environmental law in Scotland to how planning and planners can help tackle the growing housing crisis. Delegates were given the opportunity to reflect on the challenges for planning and environmental law in Scotland as well as the great opportunities the next few years may present to the profession.

Bringing the planning profession together

The conference provided an opportunity for professionals from across the planning and law professions to come together to discuss some of the key challenges to their profession going forward. While Brexit was high on the list of discussion topics, the possibilities for reform, and the opportunities for practitioners to learn and share their experiences and knowledge with one another, for what is now the 26th year of SPEL, continued to be at the heart of the conference discussions.

Is planning fit for purpose?

Chaired by Stuart Gale QC, from event sponsors Terra Firma Chambers, the conference was opened by Greg Lloyd who addressed the issue of the “distinctiveness” of the Scottish planning system, asking the question, “Is planning fit for purpose?” In the context of Brexit and with the benefit of years of planning knowledge, Greg discussed the performance of planning and how its modernisation is equipping planners to deal with challenges in the future.

The Rt. Hon Brian Wilson, former UK energy minister, spoke next on the challenges energy targets are posing not only for environmental lawyers and practitioners but also for planners. He discussed how the drive to achieve energy targets both in renewable and traditional energy generation needs to be tackled as much by planners as environmentalists and politicians. He also highlighted the need to meet the growing demand for energy by helping to reduce energy use and tackle wider socioeconomic issues relating to energy in Scotland.

Brexit – the impact on planning

The morning session was brought to a close firstly by Laura Tainsh from Davidson Chalmers who spoke about the intricacies, expectations, challenges and potential opportunities for environmental law and practitioners in Scotland following the UK’s decision to leave the EU. She highlighted the importance of ensuring that the essential elements of environmental law are retained within any future UK or Scottish legislation and that a system is created which provides an opportunity for robust scrutiny and maintenance of standards, specifically in relation to the consistency of application. She also discussed some of the ways in which existing principles and policies can be future proofed. Following on from Laura, Robert Sutherland gave an overview of recent developments in community right to buy in Scotland.

The morning session also included a case law roundup which reviewed and discussed recent significant cases including: RSPB vs Scottish Ministers (2017); Douglas vs Perth and Kinross Council (2017); and Wildland ltd vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

Delivering new housing

The afternoon opened with a panel session, where speakers tackled the million-dollar question of whether planning reform will assist in the delivery of new homes to help tackle the growing housing crisis. Speakers from Renfrewshire council, the University of Glasgow, house builder Taylor Wimpey, and Rettie & Co. discussed a range of topics from barriers to the delivery of homes and infrastructure, to the setting of national housebuilding targets, as well as the challenge of building the right sort of housing, in the right place at the right cost, and the role of local authorities in meeting housing need.

The afternoon session included a second case law roundup which saw review and discussion of recent significant cases including: Taylor Wimpey vs Scottish Ministers (2016); Angus Estates (Carnoustie) LLP vs Angus Kinross Council (2017); and Hopkins Homes Ltd. vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

The role of planning in driving inclusive growth

The conference was closed by self-professed “economic agitator” Ross Martin, who discussed the role of planning more widely within Scotland’s economy and its role as an agent for driving inclusive growth. He stressed the need for planners and other related professionals to look at the “bigger picture” when it comes to planning, using the system as the engine for growth and development, rather than as a barrier, and challenged those in the room to think creatively about how planning can play a role in strategic, but inclusive growth in Scotland going forward.

Some of the key points of discussion to come out of the conference were:

  • Planners, and planning lawyers need to recognise the importance of the wider social and economic context on their decision making, even if that decision only relates to one single building
  • Brexit is providing a lot of uncertainty and raising a lot of questions about the future of planning and environmental law in Scotland and the UK as a whole, but it may provide an opportunity for practitioners to take the lead and shape the system in a way that better suits current needs
  • There is scope and appetite, following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, to create a specialist planning and environmental law court to help scrutinise decisions and fill the void left by the EU in terms of accountability and implementation of environmental law, practice and strategy going forward

SPEL Journal is a bi- monthly journal published by the Idox Information Service. The journal is unique in covering all aspects of planning and environmental law in Scotland. Each issue contains articles on new legislation, significant court cases, expert comment on key planning appeals, government circulars and guidance, ombudsman cases and book reviews. SPEL deals with matters of practical concern to practitioners both in the public and private sector. Please contact Christine Eccleson at christine.eccleson@idoxgroup.com if you are interested in learning more about the journal or our subscription rates.

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Prefabs sprout: could factory-built homes tackle the housing crisis?

Long regarded as a relic of the past, prefabricated housing is now emerging as a potential solution for the UK’s chronic shortage of affordable homes.

Britain’s golden age of prefabricated housing happened after World War II, when the government authorised thousands of factory-built homes to replace housing destroyed by bombing raids. Intended to last for no more than ten years, many prefab homes were still occupied thirty years after construction.

For a period during the 1960s, prefab housing enjoyed a resurgence. One scheme was showcased at Montreal’s Expo 67 as a solution for high-quality housing in dense urban environments. But in Britain prefabs became associated with shoddy, damp and dysfunctional housing. The largest remaining post-war prefab estate, located in London is now facing demolition.

The prefab renaissance

In recent years, prefabricated housing has been rebranded and is now showing signs of making a comeback:

  • In Yorkshire, the Legal & General insurance firm has opened the world’s largest modular homes construction factory.
  • In Manchester, regeneration company Urban Splash is developing a 43-home scheme, with each house designed by the customer, then built offsite and shipped to the New Islington estate.
  • In Lewisham, south London, Rational House is working with AECOM to build “off-the-shelf” homes for young professionals struggling to get on the property ladder.

Renewed interest in prefab housing has been driven by the severe shortage of housing in the UK, along with the rising cost of traditional construction methods. At the same time, new materials and construction techniques have made prefab homes a more economic and attractive option. This week, leading engineering firm Laing O’Rourke has suggested that the acute lack of space in Britain’s cities could lead to the next generation of tower blocks being built almost entirely off-site.

In its 2017 housing white paper, the government proposed measures to stimulate the growth of the offsite construction sector and promote more factory built homes through the Accelerated Construction programme and the Home Builders’ Fund. The paper highlighted Creekside Wharf in Greenwich as a good example of prefab housing’s potential.

The benefits and challenges of prefab housing

The champions of prefab housing argue that it provides comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed much more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern prefab apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly. Proponents also argue that offsite construction generates less noise, dust and disruption for neighbours. And although offsite costs remain higher, the margin is narrowing as prefab manufacturing achieves efficiencies of scale.

But although today’s prefab homes are a world away from their post-war forerunners, critics have argued that contemporary prefab housing is no match for a traditionally-constructed home. There have also been concerns that prefab homes could be deployed as a quick fix. The Guardian’s architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright commented:

“If taken up as the silver bullet to endless waiting lists, there’s a very real risk it could sow the seeds for a future of cheaply built, meanly scaled, less stable housing that can be conveniently swept away at a moment’s notice.”

Some have expressed concern that factory-built homes could end up deskilling traditional building, but others believe that prefabricated housing could plug a skills gap in the construction sector after the UK leaves the European Union.  Meanwhile, lenders to developers are still cautious about financing prefab projects until their long-term durability has been tested.

Prefab present…

Despite these reservations, prefab housing is shedding its outdated image and increasingly entering the mainstream housing sector. In some areas, factory-built housing is already being deployed to help people with urgent housing needs.

The architecture firm of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners is internationally famous for its cutting edge projects, from Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five to the National Assembly for Wales. But in 2015, the firm joined forces with the London Borough of Merton, the YMCA and Aecom to create Y:Cube. The first 24-home Y:Cube development is located at Mitcham in south-west London, and took just five months to build. Tenants come from YMCA hostels and Merton’s housing waiting list, finding the flats as welcome alternatives to hostels and B&B accommodation. A similar project is taking place to provide Y:Cube accommodation for local people with acute housing needs in the London borough of Lewisham.

Beyond the capital, further prefab housing developments are in the making:

  • Manchester City Council has been leading an offsite construction consortium of 17 housing associations with the aim of building hundreds of new homes in the north of England.
  • In December 2016, Your Housing Group announced a partnership with a Chinese construction firm to deliver 25,000 prefabricated homes over the next five years.
  • Swan Housing Association is building an 18,000 sq ft factory to deliver new homes for the regeneration of Basildon’s Craylands estate.

…and prefab future?

While prefab housing is gathering pace, one entrepreneur is taking the concept to the next level. Alastair Parvin, a graduate of Sheffield University’s school of architecture, believes that harnessing the possibilities offered by technology can make building a house more straightforward.

The idea behind Parvin’s “WikiHouse” is to enable users to draw up plans for their new home online. But instead of the house then being constructed at one offsite location, the components will be manufactured by a network of small business and community spaces – known as maker-spaces.

We’ve come a long way from the prefab housing of the post-war years, and perhaps there’s some way to go before the vision of the WikiHouse is realised. In the meantime, prefabricated housing could offer a much-needed boost to tackling the nation’s existing housing shortfall.


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Going through the roof: could building upwards address London’s housing problem?

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The Ter Meulen Building, Rotterdam: 21st century residential apartments built on top of a post-war shopping centre

The housing challenges facing London are well documented::

  • London needs around 50,000 new homes a year, but housebuilding is running at around half that.
  • Between 2005 and 2015, private rents in London rose by an average of 35%.
  • Future projections suggest there will be 9m people in London by 2020, 10m by 2030 and 11m by 2050.

There are now serious concerns that the lack of affordable housing and rising rents risk driving key workers out of London, and may cause businesses to think twice about locating in the capital. But as well as triggering dire warnings about the future of London and the UK economy, the housing crisis has also prompted increasingly creative ideas on how to solve it.

Going up

Last year, Darren Johnson, who represented the Green Party on the Greater London Assembly, proposed five ideas to secure land for affordable homes. One of his proposals was to build additional storeys on top of existing buildings.

Johnson suggested that this approach has many advantages over demolishing existing properties and building new homes, including:

  • a shorter period of disruption for residents;
  • more environmentally friendly than demolition and rebuilding
  • an opportunity to refurbish the existing homes

He offered the example of the Ducane Housing Association in Hammersmith, which built 44 new homes on top of two 1970s buildings. Based on data from London’s Borough Councils, Johnson estimated that almost 50,000 new homes could be built using Ducane’s example.

One potential stumbling block is the difficulty of getting planning permission for intensive construction projects in the heart of active communities. However, in July 2015, the Treasury signalled the government’s intent to end the need to obtain planning permission for upwards extensions in London.

Building on public buildings

Another approach, on similar lines, is the idea of building new homes on top of publically owned buildings. In 2015, WSP professional services consultants conducted a survey to gauge interest in the idea. Among their findings:

  • 61% of respondents supported the idea of allowing private developers to refurbish government buildings, allowing them to make their money back by building additional housing on top of the refurbished building, which they could sell for profit.
  • Over 60% of Londoners would happily live above a library, while 44% would be willing to live above a government administration building, and around a quarter of Londoners would be willing to live above a school or hospital.

The WSP report went on to suggest that developing all available sites by building apartments above all available public buildings in London could provide over 630,000 residential units.

“Of course we acknowledge that not every building will be able to be redeveloped in this way, but even targeting one in every two municipal buildings could go a long way in solving the housing crisis, providing 315,000 homes.”

These homes, the report argued, would be most suitable for key workers employed by these facilities, or by students, older people and young professionals. Some may even house those working in the facilities below.

One landlord is already exploring the idea with several London councils. Apex Housing Group has experience of converting airspace above properties into luxury penthouse apartments. Managing director Arshad Bhatti believes the principle could be applied to affordable homes:

“We are working with a number of local authorities across London and expect airspace development projects will help bridge the gap between demand and supply of new homes in London – crucially with minimum lead times, and offering maximum value for property owners.”

The view from overseas

The idea of building up may be relatively new to London, but other densely populated cities have already been exploring its possibilities.

  • In Rotterdam, developers have been combining ultra-lightweight materials to build apartments on top of a 1940s shopping centre.
  • In New York, a developer is planning to construct a nine-storey condominium on top of apartments dating from the 1950s.
  • In Paris, three prefab dwellings attached to the rooftops of existing buildings were completed in January 2016.

The architects of the Paris project believe it has multiple benefits:

“Building on top of the roofs is not only an ecological and economical solution, it’s working against the urban sprawl that kills the social link. It’s also a contemporary way to discover new perspectives of the city, a new Paris above the horizon.”

But not everyone is happy with the idea. Residents in the existing apartments beneath the proposed New York condominium are concerned that the wear and tear of construction could damage their properties. And they’re also worried about the stability of the columns supporting the new building.

The only way is up?

Clearly, building on existing properties is not without its problems. But as the housing crisis in London intensifies, and spreads to other parts of the UK, it’s an idea that may no longer be regarded as pie in the sky.


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